Re the Trans Mountain Pipeline – Justin, call Donald

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On April 15 the nation saw the reaffirmation of Justin Trudeau’s non-leadership on the Trans Mountain pipeline project. Following his meeting with premiers Notley and Horgan, Trudeau revealed that his government would be entering financial talks with Kinder Morgan aimed at providing the pipeline’s proponent with the certainty it requires to proceed. It is not clear that a financial backstop is the sum total of what Kinder Morgan was seeking when it asked that its concerns over the future of the project be resolved by May 31.

Kinder Morgan is a transportation company that builds fully approved and regulated pipelines to deliver oil and gas produced by its customers from point A to point B. It is not a flag-bearer for a political philosophy or ideological group. Its opponents on this project, however, are a very vocal, highly politicized and ideologically driven sub-set of the Canadian population with numerous axes to grind; anti-oil sands, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, to name a few. While a minority, these groups have influence out of proportion to their size including allies among some of Trudeau’s closest advisors. They are making every effort with their opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline to draw a line in the sand and to force the government to cross it.

Both Kinder Morgan and its opponents rely on the rights delivered by Canada’s democratic institutions to allow them to go about their business, express their point of view, and not be interfered with or obstructed in their various enterprises by anyone without the appropriate cause or authority to do so. This is the “rule of law” referenced endlessly whenever this project is discussed. We accept the rule of law in our daily lives almost unquestioningly. By way of illustration, if you fail to pay your taxes you may be subject to fines and could face a prison term. People generally pay their taxes knowing that the government has the legal authority to collect them while also understanding that it has the coercive power, i.e., the police and court system, to enforce the law.

Opponents of various government policies or corporate activities have every right to protest against them by exercising their freedom of expression or to mobilize politically. The next level of engagement is to participate in or instigate acts of civil disobedience. There is a line that most of us understand should not be crossed; when these acts become criminal in nature and harm is done to persons or property. Those who choose civil disobedience often feel justified in their actions because they believe that theirs is a just cause, that they occupy a moral and ethical position that gives them licence to obstruct and push against or beyond legal boundaries.

Trudeau’s Liberals have been spinning a narrative from before the 2015 federal election that seemed bound to fuel anti-pipeline sentiment. They began by branding the NEB and its approval mechanisms as badly flawed or even broken. The previous Harper government had made efforts to streamline what was already an arduous process, principally by limiting consultations to those who might be directly affected by a given project. This was characterized as “gutting” the existing safeguards, the implied message being that existing pipelines and projects under review were not subjected to adequate scrutiny and therefore posed undue risk to the environment and to public safety. Even a superficial review of the safety and reliability of the 73,000 kilometres of NEB-regulated pipelines in Canada reveal this to be fatuous nonsense. The Liberals promised to revamp the process and restore the public trust they were largely responsible for undermining.

This narrative, while obviously useful to the Liberal electoral effort to demonize the Harper Conservatives, has also served to solidify the resolve of those already disposed toward actively opposing pipeline projects. Once elected, the Liberals then cancelled the Northern Gateway pipeline project claiming the cartoonishly named (by activists) “Great Bear Rainforest” was no place for a pipeline and also imposed a ban on tanker traffic along B.C.’s northern coastline. These arbitrary decisions, made without any visible signs of the “evidence-based” policy-making philosophy the Liberals claim they adhere to, must have been for the environmentalist crowd like catnip for a tabby. The ascension of an anti-pipeline NDP/Green provincial government in B.C. that since taking office has actively sought to derail the Trans Mountain project despite having no jurisdiction in the matter would have further agitated their already fevered minds.

The tepid support for the project since approval from Trudeau and key ministers like Jim Carr (Natural Resources) and Catherine McKenna (Environment and Climate Change) suggested that the government’s own heart was not really in it. Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan was discovering that the business of getting the thing built was not going to be easy with petty bureaucratic roadblocks being erected by the local municipal government in Burnaby being just one obstruction.

It has become more and more apparent that all the political wrangling and legal arguments are not and never were going to be the real battle. The real battle, and likely greatest source of uncertainty for Kinder Morgan, is what will take place on the ground when the acts of civil, and possibly criminal, disobedience become the centrepiece of everyone’s daily newsfeed. And that’s when the prime minister who has tried to substitute charm, endlessly repeated and often inane talking points, and largely pointless globetrotting for actual leadership is going to run aground.

Kinder Morgan just wants to build and operate transportation infrastructure to serve its clients as it believed it had the right to do and has reliably and safely done with its existing Trans Mountain pipeline for over sixty years. It doesn’t want to be defending the ramparts from the hordes in their trendy hiking gear or Alpaca wool ponchos, waving placards and chaining themselves to construction equipment. Demanding reassurance from this government is not gamesmanship but a sensible and prudent decision. There are other places where Kinder Morgan can operate that offer a more predictable business environment, the U.S., for one, where it won’t be necessary to die on some hill it has no interest or obligation to defend.

So how does the PM extricate himself from this ugly mess he has played a large role in creating? The first thing he should do is place a call to Donald Trump. Why Trump? Because, unlike Trudeau, Trump has confronted a similar situation and resolved it with swift and decisive action.

For months, during the late days of the Obama administration’s reign, opponents to the Dakota Access Pipeline project had occupied a tent city obstructing work on the project. Obama had ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a full environmental impact assessment and issue an environmental impact statement. The Corps of Engineers had previously reviewed the route and found no significant impact. Shortly after taking office in January and February 2017, President Trump first reversed Obama’s legislation and then ordered the Corps of Engineers to conclude the environmental assessment. The project was completed in April and oil began flowing through the pipeline in May.

More than 1,000 permits and approvals were granted for the pipeline from a host of regulatory bodies. Engineering plans for the pipeline addressed a major point of contention, the risk associated with passing under Lake Oahe, by burying the pipe more than 95 feet below the lake bed – far deeper than the seven existing pipelines that already traversed the bed of the lake. Court actions may continue, but the pipeline is a physical reality.

Protesters in the camp were given a deadline to leave and the evacuation was completed only a day late in fairly orderly fashion. Unlike Trump, Trudeau does not need to expedite the permitting process as Trans Mountain has been approved by the NEB and by cabinet, and the jurisdictional right of the federal government is beyond dispute. What he does need to do is acknowledge that threat of disruptive behaviour by activist protesters is the one significant roadblock to getting the pipeline built and that the perceived weakness of the government with respect to upholding the rule of law is the primary source of uncertainty for Kinder Morgan. That he and his government have the will to stop unlawful actions, even at the risk of losing approbation from many of the groups they have so assiduously courted, is the message he must sell.

The question, yet unanswered, is whether the prime minister is capable of a believable performance as a tough and principled leader who will back up his “it’s in the national interest” mantra with decisive use of the coercive power that rests with his office. Such a persona is entirely at odds with his irrational desire to endlessly consult with everyone on every issue. “Sunny ways” just won’t cut it this time.

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(Un)Scientific American – Fatuous Nonsense on Climate Change & Social Unrest in Iran

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The attribution of virtually any significant weather event to climate change is a particularly grating and ill-informed habit of climate evangelists. It is not supportable by the science, even blithe suggestions that climate change “contributed” to the severity of an event or to the frequency of particular event types are not verifiable. Making such statements is no less ridiculous than saying during a cold snap, “so what happened to global warming?”

To claim that climate change is a major driver of the current social unrest in Iran takes climate change attribution to a whole other level of bullshit. But, that’s where Scientific American went when it posted an article by Scott Waldman on January 8, Climate Change May Have Helped Spark Iran’s Protests.

According to Waldman, “The impacts of climate change are among the environmental challenges facing Iran that helped spark protests in dozens of cities across the Islamic republic.” He then says, “Rising temperatures are seen by some experts as an underlying condition for the economic hardships that led to the unrest.”

One such expert, Barbara Slavin, from the Atlantic Council, claims, “the role of climate change on the protests is “massive” and underreported by the media. The protests have largely sprung from provincial cities that climate refugees now call home, instead of the capital, Tehran.” Slavin maintains these “climate refugees” have moved from their farms into urban centres because 14 years of drought have made farming impossible.

Waldman throws in some alarmist projections – rainfall is expected to fall by 20% in the Middle East by the year 2100 and temperature to rise by 5⁰C – which are poor substitutes for observational data. Actual weather data covering 114 years from 1901 to 2015 highlight the obvious; Iran is a hot, arid country. Looking at both precipitation and temperature data over this period, a couple of things are quite striking. First, temperature has risen by about 1⁰C, consistent with global trends but hardly catastrophic. Second, precipitation has fluctuated quite dramatically, month-by-month and year-by-year but the monthly linear trend is nearly flat.[1]

Over the most recent 14-year period in the data (2002-15) the precipitation trendline for January shows a fairly steep decline but in July it shows an increase. Given that January is a wetter month in Iran than July, it is not surprising that the annual trend over this limited time frame is negative. But 14 years in terms of climate is almost nothing, using this limited data to prove climate change effects when the century-plus trend tells a markedly different story is just cherry-picking data to support your narrative.

Waldman also suggests that the worst effects of climate change in Iran, “could be curtailed with a drop in emissions from fossil fuels, a large percentage of which come from fossil fuels derived from the Middle East.” He then cites Kaveh Ehsani, an expert in Iranian politics at DePaul University, who claims, “there is a growing sense of environmentalism in Iran, in response to the drought and deadly heat waves.” But just to make sure he nails all the villains in the piece he also asserts that, “the Trump administration’s retreat from the Paris climate agreement and its larger rejection of climate policy mean that Iranian citizens are increasingly blaming environmental problems on the United States.”

Well, that’s neat and tidy. Western use of fossil fuels, the resultant changing climate, plus climate change denialism are the cause of civil unrest in Iran. The solution: stop using fossil fuels.

Waldman makes only passing reference to poor water management practices. In the abstract of a research paper, Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis?, author Kaveh Madani states: “The government blames the current crisis on the changing climate, frequent droughts, and international sanctions, believing that water shortages are periodic. However, the dramatic water security issues of Iran are rooted in decades of disintegrated planning and managerial myopia.”[2]

The paper identifies three major causes of Iran’s growing water crisis: “(1) rapid population growth and inappropriate spatial population distribution; (2) inefficient agriculture sector; and (3) mismanagement and thirst for development.” Madani also posits that if Iran fails to change its water management policies and practices it risks losing, “its international reputation for significant success in water resources management over thousands of years in an arid area of the world.” In other words, the current regime in Iran has failed to adapt well to changing circumstances, certainly less well than its predecessors.

Waldman’s failure to mention population growth is a glaring omission. Iran experienced more than a fourfold increase in population over the past 60-plus years from about 19 million in 1955 to 82 million currently.[3] Half the population is under 30; it’s hardly a stretch to suggest a correlation between youth and civil unrest, particularly when those young people live under the iron rule of a despotic theocracy that limits their personal and political freedoms as well as economic opportunities.

Scientific American describes itself as “the award-winning authoritative source for the science discoveries and technology innovations that matter.” Let’s hope that the fatuous nonsense that is Waldman’s article was just a misstep into a pile of activist ordure rather than evidence of a more troubling malaise undermining the journal’s scientific authority.

 

[1] All climate data from the World Bank Group, Climate Knowledge Portal

[2] Water management in Iran: what is causing the looming crisis?, Kaveh Madani, August 2014, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

[3] Population data from Worldometers.info, 2018

“This is what Canadians expect us to do” – the Trudeau Liberals’ confusion on Energy Policy

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During his national town hall tour in January 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a stop in Peterborough, Ontario where a distraught woman tearfully recounted that her electricity bills were greater than her mortgage payments. Despite working more than 75 hours a week, the woman, Kathy Katula, said she feared losing her home and that, despite earning $50,000 a year, she was now, “living in energy poverty.” Katula asked Trudeau how he could justify imposing a carbon tax on people like her who are struggling to keep their heads above water.

In response, the Prime Minister rightly pointed out that electricity generation is under provincial jurisdiction but also suggested the world is moving off fossil fuels, linking that to, “the extreme weather events that are coming.” Trudeau then suggested that because of the anticipated harms and costs these coming events imply, “we are facing a challenge where we have to change behaviours.” In closing out his response to Katula, he said that carbon taxes would have to be imposed by the provinces in such a way that they do not unduly burden the most vulnerable in society but that, “we need to get off fossil fuels, we need to make this transition, we need to start protecting our lakes, waters, rivers, streams, our lands, our children’s future and that means we are going to have to go through a shift period.”

Fast forward eight months to October 2017 and the Generation Energy Forum hosted in Winnipeg by Natural Resources Minister, Jim Carr. On taking office in 2015, Carr’s mandate letter from Trudeau outlined a number of responsibilities, foremost among them a directive to work closely with the provinces and territories to, “develop a Canadian Energy Strategy to protect Canada’s energy security; encourage energy conservation; and bring cleaner, renewable energy onto a smarter electricity grid.”

Two years into his mandate, Carr was promoting Generation Energy as an important means for gathering input to support the formation of an energy strategy. According to a media advisory, the forum would bring together, “more than 600 people – from youth to industry, academic, Indigenous and community leaders,” to, “explore Canada’s path to affordable energy, the next generation in technology and innovation, energy governance and Canada’s role in the global energy transition.”

The forum’s keynote speakers included “international energy experts”:

  • Fatih Birol – Executive Director, International Energy Agency;
  • Eldar Saetre – Chief Executive Officer, Statoil Global;
  • Annette Verschuren – Founder and Chief Executive Officer, NRStor; and
  • Elyse Allen – President and Chief Executive Officer, GE Canada;
  • Jeremy Rifkin – President, Foundation on Economic Trends and Advisor to the European Union.

An interesting cross-section of speakers representing: an intergovernmental agency focused on measuring and analyzing global energy supply, demand and emerging trends; a Norway-based global energy company, principally an oil and gas producer with interests in carbon capture and storage and wind projects; a start-up Canadian clean-tech company focused on the development and operation of energy storage solutions; the Canadian arm of a global industrial powerhouse engaged in everything from commercial finance to, jet engines, locomotives, healthcare and digital energy management technology; and, finally, a small consultancy offering pathways to the future to government clients around the globe.

Curiously, but not surprisingly, there was no keynote speaker listed representing any major Canadian fossil fuel producer. Curious, because fossil fuels have been largely responsible for delivering our current prosperity and will be essential to its continuance well into the future. Unsurprising, though, given that the current government is possessed of a singular will to “decarbonize” the national economy by mid-century and for any national energy strategy to be adopted it must serve that objective. In a press release to launch the forum, Minister Carr stated, “…it is this generation’s responsibility to act now to develop an affordable and reliable path to the low-carbon economy of the future.”

Post-forum, Natural Resources Canada posted at least two of the keynotes, one from Eldar Saetre of Norwegian energy giant, Statoil, and another from Jeremy Rifkin who is, for all intents and purposes the Foundation on Economic Trends. Saetre’s remarks, as might be expected from the leader of a modern energy company, were founded in today’s realities; fossil fuels provide more than 80% of the world’s energy while wind and solar, despite their rapid growth, still only provide about 1%.

Saetre, who established at the outset his belief in climate science and the need to address the problem of climate change, suggested that we need to concentrate on the 80% if we are to make any progress. A key point he made is that the content of the 80% is important, and that replacing coal with gas in power generation is critical as is focusing on how oil and gas are produced. Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases associated with gas and oil production is a key ambition of Statoil and Saetre stated that the company has succeeded in reducing its level of emissions by 50% compared with its competitors. Statoil has invested heavily in carbon capture and storage technology and has a small, but growing, portfolio of renewable energy projects. All of which speaks to a measured, pragmatic approach to an enormous economic and technical challenge.

By contrast, Jeremy Rifkin’s address was apparently founded in some alternate reality of his own imagining. This, it seems, is not unusual for Rifkin who has forged a career and become an advisor to heads of government around the world without possessing the sorts of credentials you might expect someone in his position to have. He is a prolific author with a gift for threading together seemingly disparate pieces of information into policy narratives.

Rifkin wastes no opportunity to advertise his relationships with his government clients. Early in his Generation Energy keynote he described the beginnings of his role as advisor to German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and mentioned that he now has a similar relationship with China. Just as quickly, he jumped the rails with his own interpretations of both climate science and economics by first suggesting recent weather events provide evidence that we are experienceing “real-time climate change” and then saying that the Great Recession of 2008 was triggered when the price of oil peaked in July 2008 at $147 a barrel and that the financial system collapse that followed was just the “aftershock.” Both of these assertions are well outside the consensus views of climate scientists and economists respectively.

You will likely trip over Mr. Rifkin’s thesis on how to solve the climate/energy problem by spending only a very small amount of time searching for it online. He has been peddling his “third industrial revolution” argument for a few years now. It boils down to his view that we have been through two industrial revolutions and are now entering a third. Each comes about through the convergence of breakthroughs in communications, energy and transportation technology. The first was built on mass print media, coal, and rail transport. The second arose from the advent of telephony, radio and television, oil, and mass-produced autos. According to Rifkin, the third industrial revolution will revolve around an “emerging convergence of the communication, renewable energy, and automated mobility internet,” all of which will rest on the Internet of Things.

Rifkin says he told Merkel that growing the German economy would not be possible using 2nd industrial revolution infrastructure and that the key is to embark on the building of infrastructure for the current, 3rd industrial revolution. Doing so will solve the climate problem while also providing jobs and economic growth for decades. According to Rifkin, Germany has made tremendous progress and now gets around 33% of its electricity from wind and solar. He also maintains that the capital cost of wind and solar have been dropping exponentially and that the marginal cost of operating these assets is near-zero as the wind and sunshine are free.

Off the rails again, it seems. The myth of Germany’s Energiewende (transition to low-carbon energy) has been starting to unravel for some time. A McKinsey study of the program’s most recent results revealed that it is foundering on multiple fronts. Far from being economically viable, the push to renewables is still only achievable through subsidies. The study found that CO2 emissions are far above targets, actually increased in 2016, and that jobs in wind and solar declined substantially for the fourth year in a row. Further economic damage is being wrought through reductions in employment in energy-intensive industry where energy costs are limiting growth, and by increasing energy poverty among ordinary citizens who now pay CAD $0.45 per kilowatt hour which is 47.3% above the European average. Overall, program costs continue to rise and are forecast to hit CAD $115 billion by 2025.

Holding Germany up as an example for Canada ignores the basic reality that, at least in terms of electric power production, Canada is the leader and Germany is the laggard. In 2016, public power production in Germany came from hydro 3.8%, biomass 9.0%, wind 14.2%, solar 6.9%, nuclear 14.6%, brown coal (lignite) 24.5%, hard coal 18.2%, and gas 8.3%. The largest source, lignite, produces nearly twice the CO2 emissions as gas. German CO2 emissions have, more or less, flatlined in recent years. The largest reductions were a consequence of German reunification when outmoded vehicles, industrial equipment and other infrastructure in the former East Germany were replaced with more current technologies. The cost of introducing renewables into the power mix for a negligible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has been staggering.

By contrast, 59.3% of Canada’s electricity is generated using hydro power, around 16% comes from zero-emission nuclear plants, 9.5% from coal, 8.5% from gas and 1.3% from oil. Non-hydro renewables, wind, biomass, and solar, provide the remaining 5+%. In total, 51% of German electricity is produced using fossil fuels while in Canada only 20% is. Germany is decommissioning its nuclear fleet and as a consequence is relying more heavily on dirty lignite coal which it has in abundance. According to Jeremy Rifkin, it’s over for both coal and nuclear, and oil will soon join them as “stranded assets.” There is no evident support for his view based on global efforts to date.

We have our own Energiewende disaster in the making in the form of Ontario’s Green Energy Plan. Ontario decided in 2009 to transition to renewables (primarily wind and solar) despite already generating more than 80% of its electricity virtually emissions-free with hydro and nuclear. Today, after billions paid in subsidies and billions more to be paid in the future, Ontario has succeeded in making its power more expensive than almost any other jurisdiction in North America, imposing energy poverty on citizens like the unfortunate Kathy Katula, and destroying the competitive advantage its manufacturing sector once enjoyed when Ontario’s electricity was competitively priced. On a given day, these new renewable energy “assets” produce power that is surplus to requirements and which is then spilled over the border to jurisdictions with which Ontario competes for commercial and industrial investments.

The lie of this transition can be viewed in near real-time on Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator’s (IESO) website. As this is being written, 86.7% of power in Ontario is being produced by the nuclear fleet (57.4%) and by hydro (29.3%). The wind turbines in the province are operating at less than 50% of their capacity, contributing about 5%, while the solar installations are operating at less than 5%  of capacity and so delivering almost nothing (it’s an overcast day in November, so unsurprising). The forest of wind turbines and prairies of solar panels that would be needed to take on the full job defies imagination and if it were a windless night, then what?

About 89% of the amount of power generated by wind is being exported. That power is more costly to produce than power generated by gas, hydro or nuclear and is sold at a loss. The system operator is forced to accept the renewable power so it must scale back less costly production from, principally, gas, but also hydro to accommodate the “green” contribution. It’s also worth noting that with more renewable power on the grid more “dispatchable” power, typically provided by gas plants, is required. This enables the system operator to ramp up or reduce power as demand requires. The alternative would be to add massive storage systems to hold any surplus generated when demand is low for release when demand rises. In either case, the cost of adding renewables to the mix is not limited to erecting a wind turbine or building a solar array.

Other jurisdictions, notably South Australia, have gone down the renewables path too, with similarly unimpressive results. Two major, state-wide blackouts have occurred to date in South Australia. Because of the distortions imposed by subsidies for renewables, coal-fired generators have been shut down and no new capital is being invested in gas plants because it is uneconomic to operate these plants on an intermittent basis. South Australia relies on power generated conventionally and imported from neighbouring states and when the interconnect failed the lights went out. Meanwhile, Australia remains a major coal supplier to India and China both of which, under the Paris accord, continue to build new coal-fired generating capacity. It is difficult to see how this mess can be seen as progress.

There are countervailing views to Rifkin’s but they seem to get less attention, perhaps because they offer up hard realities instead of a fanciful, imagined future. Cambridge University Department of Engineering Professor, M.J. Kelly, recently wrote that, “…what is done in the name of decarbonization should leave the world in a better place. I am sure that what has been done so far in the name of decarbonization is set to fail comprehensively in meeting its avowed target, and that a new debate is needed.” Kelly points out that the growth of mega-cities makes the use of renewables less viable. Both wind and solar require large areas of land for deployment and densely populated urban areas do not afford this. Only nuclear and fossil fuels can provide the energy needed under such constraints.

Professor Kelly suggests that the greatest potential impact lies in behavioural change. If the world’s population could be convinced that it is in their best interests to reduce consumption of any, and all resources, particularly fuels and electricity, then energy consumption and related emissions could be halved. There is no appetite for such a change in the developed economies and it would be grossly unfair to suggest limiting consumption in the developing world. The latter want the advantage enjoyed by the former; cheap and reliable sources of energy, mainly fossil fuels, to transform their lives and narrow the living standards gap between each.

The harsh reality, according to Professor Kelly, is that, “…the ratio of fossil fuel energy used to total energy used has remained unchanged since 1990 at 85%. The call to decarbonize the global economy by 80% by 2050 can now only be described as glib. “(I)t is only possible if we wish to see large parts of the population die from starvation, destitution or violence in the absence of enough low-carbon energy to sustain society.”

Following the Generation Energy Forum Minister Carr stated that the energy strategy called for by his mandate letter would be an “ongoing dialogue” rather than a single document. According to Carr, the forum, “…was a very important milestone along a path that has no stop signs.” This opaque message is a pretty unsatisfactory outcome two years into his tenure. It’s not as if energy and the environment haven’t been the focus of considerable public, media and government attention at all levels. It must also be true that Carr has access to a wealth of data, both public and private. Hosting a forum to gather ideas should have been the least consequential activity undertaken in the service of formulating a strategy. That Carr seems to think more dialogue is the right approach to determining a way forward is beyond disappointing; it is an abdication of the responsibility to meaningfully manage a key portfolio that profoundly impacts the lives of all Canadians.

The federal Liberals like to boast about their commitment to evidence-based policy making. On this file, they appear to have abandoned that and instead allowed themselves to be romanced by the likes of Jeremy Rifkin. To be fair, in Gerald Butts, Rifkin has at least one fellow traveller who is very close to the seat of power. Butts, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau, is on record while president of the Canadian arm of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) saying, “…we don’t think there ought to be a carbon-based energy industry by the middle of this century.” Before heading up the WWF, Butts was Principal Secretary to Dalton McGuinty under whose watch the Green Energy Act in Ontario was introduced, to disastrous effect.

Rifkin and Butts might charitably be described as sophists. Aristotle observed that, “the art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the sophist is one who makes money from apparent but unreal wisdom.” The evidence clearly shows that promotion of renewable wind and solar power as the way forward ignores reality. The unrelenting focus on electricity power generation while largely ignoring all the other uses for fossil fuels minimizes the scope of the challenge. It is reasonable to take the position that Canada needs more fossil fuels in its energy mix than other countries simply because of its cold climate, vast geography, limited and narrowly dispersed population, and its prodigious resource wealth, the exploitation of which is essential to sustaining the quality of life enjoyed by Canadians.

It is physically impossible to reliably provide space heating, enable cross-country transport of people and goods, link remote communities or economically transform resources with only wind and solar power. The ice storm that struck Ontario in 2013 provides a perfect illustration of the challenge that weather alone poses. A couple of days after the storm struck, wind generation was zero because the turbines would have been at risk of severe damage if operated while coated in ice. Solar too, was effectively inoperative for 24 hours per day, not just the usual 15 hours or so at that time of year. Meanwhile, the nuclear plant was humming along providing the bulk of the base load power needed, as were gas-fired and hydro generators. Damage to the distribution system was the major problem at the time, but renewable generators are demonstrably more vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather than conventional power sources. Moving goods across this country or operating any heavy industry would be staggeringly difficult without fossil fuels, particularly during the dark and cold of a Canadian winter.

The Prime Minister and other members of his cabinet and caucus are fond of explaining or justifying their policy positions with trite comments along the lines of, “this is what Canadians expect us to do.” There is clearly widespread support for some sort of action on climate change but it is hard to believe that Canadians expect the Trudeau Liberals to decarbonize the country at any cost and all for the sake of reducing Canada’s share of global emissions to something like 1% instead of 2%. The collective and individual sacrifice required will be enormous. Considering the absence of any true successes on this front anywhere to date, there is little reason to believe the transition, as promised, will create new wealth and countless clean-tech jobs, or have any measurable impact on global temperature.

The present government has an obvious distaste for conventional energy projects to the point that it throws up roadblocks like posting arbitrary bans on tanker traffic or declaring, without consultation, certain wild areas as off limits to pipelines, just because. They also show a marked lack of enthusiasm for those projects that have already been approved or are nearing approval.  They simultaneously talk up Canadians’ expectations regarding process reform, broader dialogue (at least among the like-minded) and the need for social license. It would be encouraging if, instead of hosting public fora with keynote speeches delivered by fabulists, the government spent more time actually examining the evidence available and the Canadian reality of a difficult climate, vast geography and resource potential.

If the government wants a starting point for an energy strategy that can be articulated in a document it might consider:

  • That natural gas is a welcome substitute for coal in the near- to mid-term. Canada could make a meaningful contribution to achieving global, rather than just domestic, emissions targets by prioritizing the construction of pipelines and LNG terminals on its west coast to service rapidly growing Asian markets;
  • That our northern latitude and the relative low levels of insolation the country receives dictate limited or no investment of public money in solar technology. Let markets decide if solar can compete rather than backing an also-ran with taxpayer dollars;
  • That battery back-ups, pumped storage, or other power storage technologies will only partially mitigate the problems posed by intermittency and will also add significantly to the cost of building and operating wind and solar generators. Just as for solar, let markets decide if wind can compete rather than forcing taxpayers to subsidize high cost, unreliable power options;
  • That it will be impossible to decarbonize without using nuclear power generation. Canada’s CANDU technology has safely and reliably provided carbon-free power for decades. It is time to invest in the next generation of nuclear reactors. Canada has been sitting idle while other nations are researching thorium molten salt technology which, it should be noted, does not produce weaponizable plutonium as a by-product. China is moving aggressively to add more nuclear power. If Canadian taxpayers are to be asked to subsidize anything in the decarbonization effort, it should be nuclear power. The fundamental difference between nuclear and renewables is that nuclear works while wind and solar are technological blind alleys;
  • That the oil and gas industry in Canada has made, and continues to make, huge strides toward cleaner, lower emission, and more efficient production. Oil sands producers have a strong history of research and development and have steadily reduced the environmental impacts of bitumen mining. The industry has been responsive to public concerns and deserves the support of the national government both domestically and abroad;
  • That security of supply, competitive pricing, and fitness for purpose as objectives for an energy strategy are no less important than the need to decarbonize;
  • That Canada’s regulatory processes are robust and have served the country well. Technical expertise, i.e, being able to evaluate the safety, quality of engineering and the alignment of a project’s benefits with the national interest, are within the purview of regulators. Issues of gender diversity, incorporating non-technical, “traditional knowledge” and considering the impacts of end-user consumption are not. The outstanding safety record of regulated transportation networks in Canada provide ample evidence of the quality and integrity of the regulatory process. The government should, in plain language, identify what specifically is meant to be wrong and what exactly it is they are trying to fix. It looks suspiciously like their wish is to “fix” the outcomes of these processes so that they more closely align with their ideologically-driven, activist agenda;
  • That carbon taxes are just taxes by any other name. British Columbia’s much touted tax has done very little to change behaviour in the province, which is the primary reason for having such a tax. Over the past few years, British Columbians, like other Canadians, have been buying thirsty full-size pick-ups and other light trucks in record numbers. If the province’s carbon tax had been effective, surely sales of light trucks would have declined. Introducing a carbon tax and then using the revenue to support arbitrary choices made by the government, which is what Ontario is planning with its planned cap-and-trade scheme, is terrible public policy. A properly applied carbon tax should supplant all the other de-carbonization regulations and subsidy schemes. Either regulate to achieve a desired outcome or de-regulate and replace all the other schemes with a tax and let the market work its magic. Otherwise, this is just another tax standing in the way of the middle class and all those who are trying to join it.

Canadians deserve sound policy and honesty from their government. On the energy file it appears they will continue to receive muddled, ideologically skewed policy and endless obfuscation. Is that what Canadians want, or is it simply the best that they can expect from the high-minded Trudeau Liberals?

March Madness

March Madness
March Madness
On successive weekends, the March for Science and the People’s Climate March, neatly timed to coincide with the conclusion of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, were perceived by many people as beacons warning of the environmental disaster that is sure to happen if Trump’s “anti-science” and “anti-environment” agenda is allowed to proceed unchecked. From a slightly more sanguine perspective, they reinforce that progressives appear to have lost their collective minds and hysteria will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, or at least until they get their way again.

Being pro-science and pro-environment are cornerstones of progressive dogma. As they are wont to do, progressives presume ownership in these areas. They believe that science is truth and that science can be “settled” such that no further discussion is necessary or should even be allowed. Increasingly, they are demanding radical changes on multiple policy fronts, particularly economic and energy policy, to avoid the cataclysmic events that, according to their understanding and interpretation of science, are otherwise unavoidable.

Inflexible, strident, intolerant and self-righteous, too many progressives live in a binary world where theirs is the good side and the non-aligned are so “off” that it is not impolitic to loudly and publicly vilify them for their intellectual intransigence or outright stupidity. Life must be simple in a world where doubt has been banished and refuting the arguments of those who disagree is more an exercise in naming and shaming – logic, reason and substantive argument having become passé.

Progressives’ self-proclaimed love of science and wholesale support for the environment (which today principally means stopping climate change) is vigorously propagated by much of the mainstream media and with unbridled zeal by new media. As Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty pointed out in their recent (May/June 2017) study for Politico, The Media Bubble is Worse Than You Think, most working journalists in old or new media in the U.S. are liberal, urban and geographically concentrated in a handful of major cities on the east and west coasts of the country. Shafer and Doherty note that since 2015 internet publishing jobs started to outnumber print media jobs. They report that 73% of internet publishing jobs are in the Boston to Richmond, or Seattle to San Diego corridors and that most of these people live in “blue counties.” They further note that when, “…conservative(s) use “media” as a synonym for “coastal” and “liberal,” they’re not far off the mark.”

The relationship between the pro-science, pro-environment movement and the media is perhaps a little too cozy and the parties are a little too willing to overlook one another’s faults. One consequence is that volume and repetition often override carefully curated facts and argument, i.e., it seems that providing unwavering support for the overarching narrative is more important than verifiable truths and cogent analysis of the available facts.

Just a few days before the March for Science a piece entitled, The Other Poison Gas Killing Syrians: Carbon Dioxide Emissions, was posted by the online journal, The Nation. Author Juan Cole, a professor of History at The University of Michigan, was clearly agitated that President Trump had ordered a retaliatory airstrike against Syria over its alleged deployment of Sarin gas against civilians with deadly effect, while he and his party do nothing about reducing, but, in fact, “…are committed to increasing the daily release of hundreds of thousands of tons of a far more deadly gas—carbon dioxide.” This preposterous statement, never mind the headline, speaks volumes about both Cole and his editors’ understanding of the threat to the environment posed by CO2. Cole goes on to describe CO2 as, “the most noxious gas of all.”

According to Adip Said, in a science primer written for Biology Cabinet, Research and Advisory on Biology, “carbon dioxide is an organic compound formed by one atom of Carbon and two atoms of Oxygen (O=C=O).” The primer further notes that, “carbon dioxide is by far the most important (organic compound) for the sustainability of the biosphere (the whole of life on Earth).” Any child paying attention in elementary school science class must surely be aware of these simple, basic scientific truths but they are apparently news to Cole and The Nation who are convinced CO2 is the vilest of poisonous gases. This must rank among the most elemental misapprehensions of science ever.

The same article trucks out the variously discredited notion that climate change was a key driver of a major drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 which displaced thousands of farm workers and their families, contributing to the conflict, loss of life, and refugee crisis in Syria. That’s a heavy burden for a simple molecule.

To be sure, this article is extremist and rooted in flights of fancy rather than fact. But there are other signs that the progressive platform suffers from more than surface rot. In a piece for The New Republic, Emily Atkin posits that Bill Nye is not the appropriate person to lead the climate fight. Known to his juvenile television audience as “The Science Guy,” Nye is not, and never has been a practising scientist. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering but hasn’t worked in the field for thirty-odd years. He has drawn attention lately for his climate change activism. In public appearances and YouTube videos he has become increasingly intolerant of skeptic viewpoints, makes frequent references to the climate science “consensus,” and declares the science to be settled.

Nye was front and centre in Washington during the March for Science, and was photographed behind a barricade with prominent and controversial climate scientist Michael Mann. He was also a guest on CNN just prior to the March for Science along with Princeton Physicist, William Happer, who himself is the object of some controversy as he has met with Donald Trump and is apparently under consideration for the role of chief science advisor to the president.

Happer is on record as disagreeing with the classification of CO2 as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office. He has also suggested that the gas is essentially benign and that the increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have benefitted plant growth and the planet has been greening as a consequence. His position is that, as a trace gas in the atmosphere, increased levels of CO2 do not condemn the planet to a catastrophic outcome.

As a physicist with a long and distinguished career in science, Happer’s thoughts on the issue should not be readily dismissed, but that is exactly what Bill Nye, the putative “Science Guy” did on the CNN panel. In response to Happer’s comments that humans exhale around two pounds of CO2 daily and that the planet has lately been greening, Nye went into attack mode and, as Atkin pointed out in her piece, “…scolded CNN for allowing a climate-change denier to speak with the same authority as mainstream climate scientist(s).”

Atkin then asserts that, “Nye isn’t wrong, exactly, to criticize CNN for giving Happer a platform, but he also knows better than anyone that this is how cable news conducts climate change debates.” Atkin’s concern is that Nye has become prickly and no longer uses reason to contest the positions of the other side but instead tries to shut them down. “The old Nye would have played along. He would have challenged Happer’s ignorance, and educated CNN viewers on the harms of greenhouse gases.”

Atkin’s credibility with respect to this skirmish suffers on two fronts. The first is her interpretation of Happer’s comments where she distills two points into one and in doing so misunderstands and misrepresents what the physicist said. Atkin seems to believe Happer is saying that human exhalation of CO2 has contributed to the greening of the planet. She suggests he doesn’t understand that human respiration returning carbon to the atmosphere completes a closed loop process begun when plants fix carbon from the air which is subsequently ingested by humans.

Happer’s comment about human respiration is merely intended to highlight the absurdity of calling CO2 a pollutant when it is integral to all life, including human life. His second point about the greening of the planet is substantiated by numerous studies and photographically documented by NASA satellites. A paper published in April 2016, in the journal Nature Climate Change delivered by 32 researchers from 24 institutions in eight countries reported that more available CO2 in the atmosphere was the principal driver of recent planetary greening, accounting for 70% of the increased plant growth followed by nitrogen deposition (9%), climate change (8%) and land cover change (LCC) (4%). According to NASA, “The greening represents an increase in leaves on plants and trees equivalent in area to two times the continental United States.”

Climate advocates Atkin and Nye are either ignorant of this finding or chose wilfully to ignore it. The greening is a positive externality arising from the consumption of fossil fuels and, given its scale, for advocates is an unwelcome counterpoint to their usual doom and gloom narrative. It does not, of course, represent a solution to the climate problem but it does provide mitigation. In trying to tie Happer’s two points together, Atkin asserts, “There is no such “closed loop” for the some 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide that fossil fuel combustion adds to the atmosphere every year, which is why the planet is warming.” She completely glides by the fact that the greening is net new carbon sequestration by plants on a massive scale that provides a brake for CO2-induced warming.

Nye’s response was to try and deny the legitimacy of Happer’s participation in the discussion rather than discuss the relative merits of the points he raised. This is the all too typical response from advocates; reassert the certainty of your beliefs and denigrate your opponent. While Atkin believes Nye should have argued her faulty point about a “closed loop” she is more concerned that Nye has lost his cool and no longer uses logic, fact and reason to shut down opponents.

“The problem is not Nye’s understanding of the science. It’s that he’s become unable to explain it, in simple and clear terms, to a skeptical audience. Maybe he’s been defending science for too long now, and has grown tired of debating conservative cranks whose very job is to reject everything he says. Or maybe he’s become enamored with his celebrity, and has discovered that—like the cable-news pundits and hosts he tussles with—being performative is a more lucrative path than honest inquiry and factual rigor. But so long as a partisan performance artist is the national face of the climate change fight, conservatives will continue to have a case that the left’s championing of science is all about politics.”

The second blow to Atkin’s credibility is her willingness, despite recognizing that Nye is, “…a partisan performance artist,” to grant him scientific authority over an accomplished actual scientist, in this case Happer. Presumably, the latter is just another “conservative crank.” Sensibly, of the two, which is really a “science guy,” the distinguished career physicist or the children’s entertainer? Atkin is right that Nye is ill-suited to leading the climate fight, not just because of his current state of distemper but because too many of the placard-waving marchers who follow him and the people who report on these events have a demonstrable deficit with respect to their own scientific literacy.

It’s possible Nye takes cues for the sort of behaviour he exhibited on CNN from well-known climate scientist, Michael Mann. Mann gained prominence many years ago with his “hockey stick” graph that purported to show contemporary warming proceeding at an historically unprecedented pace. Al Gore featured it in highly theatrical fashion in his hyperbolic film, An Inconvenient Truth. Mann’s findings were challenged by a number of scientists and statisticians and, depending on which side of the great climate divide you sit, you either believe he was totally exonerated or that his science is a little dodgy, or worse.

Mann interpreted the questioning of his work as a personal attack and in his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines, he rolls out his “Serengeti Strategy,” a rather clumsy analogy that seeks to position Mann as the target of predatory deniers funded by fossil fuel interests. In the book, he is critical of anyone who disagrees, friend and foe alike. Mann is serially litigious and makes a habit of denouncing other climate scientists who see things differently.

He was his usual prickly self during a recent U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing on Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method. During Mann’s testimony he criticized the work of fellow panelists John Christy, Judith Curry and Roger Pielke Jr., all, like Mann, tenured PhDs who have worked in the field for most or all of their careers. He chirped that Pielke is no longer working in the field and called Curry a “climate science denier.” It seems that, in Mann’s estimation, none can hold a candle to him as a scientist; they are all just wrong. This disrespect is unseemly but probably travels well in this age of social media where publicly naming and shaming is a surer path to “owning” your opponent than engaging in civil, reasoned debate. So armed, the “Science Guy” goes forth and talks smack.

What was the expected outcome of these marches and what, actually, did they achieve? Physician Jeremy Faust in a piece in Slate on April 24, The Problem With the March for Science, provides a succinct appraisal of the value of these events.

“Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. On any given day, many of my most “woke” friends are quick to post and retweet viral content about the latest on what Science (and I’m capitalizing this on purpose) “says,” or what some studies “prove.” But on closer look, much of what gets shared and bandied about is sheer bullshit and is diagnostic of one thing only: The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad.”

The March for Science and the People’s Climate March were little more than feel-good exercises where participants could publicly parade their virtue and push back against the “cranks” whose views are perhaps a little more circumspect and therefore less readily captured in a clever slogan or raucous chant. The science/climate issue has been fraught for some time. It is now another erosive agent wearing away at the thin tissue of our public discourse. As impressive as it is that so many were moved to gather and link arms in support of “science” and “climate” it would be a major step forward if the people leading the conga line and their media allies worked a little harder to understand what others are saying, were less intolerant, and could more convincingly demonstrate a legitimate claim to their assumed certainty.

Up in Smoke – Burning Taxpayers’ Money Chasing a Dream

Burnin turbine

Anyone planning to cast a ballot on October 19th should take a careful look at progressive promises to invest in green energy technologies. The return on such investments will likely be very poor as Ontario, the United Kingdom, and Germany have already demonstrated. To date, the leaders’ debates and mainstream media coverage of the election have left some key questions unanswered by the Liberals and NDP (the Green Party, too, but they have no hope of forming a government).

In December 2013 an ice storm swept up from the Great Plains of the U.S. into southern Ontario and moved eastward across the province knocking out electric power for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Toronto was particularly hard hit, some residents waited a week or more for power to be restored.

My family was without power for about a day; an inconvenience, far from catastrophic, and even somewhat enlightening. You very quickly comprehend how reliant we are on an uninterrupted supply of electricity when it is suddenly unavailable.

As a ratepayer concerned about the rising cost of electricity in Ontario and the provincial government’s headlong rush into renewables, I thought it might be interesting to see how the green energy plant was performing during the crisis. Viewing the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) website a day or two after the storm revealed that both wind and solar were effectively contributing nothing to meeting the power needs of Ontarians.

Wind turbines cannot be operated in icy weather conditions. Accumulated ice unbalances the rotor blades which may lead to a very expensive failure. Latitude and seasonality affect the amount and intensity of sunlight received by a particular patch of real estate, so photovoltaic panels in Ontario would have been at their least productive when the ice storm struck. Being capped with layers of ice and snow can’t have helped much either.

When service was restored it was electricity from Ontario’s nuclear, hydro, and gas-fired generating plants that flowed to customers. Ontario’s nuclear plants supply more than 60% of the electricity used in the province annually. During the ice storm and its aftermath they were humming along reliably while the renewables were stopped dead in their tracks.

Solar and wind are both plagued with a major, as yet unaddressed, problem – intermittency. Solar and wind are often at peak output when there is no concurrent demand for that output, and produce nothing when demand is at its highest. Unlike zero-emissions nuclear power plants, they are largely unfit for purpose.

Capacity utilization in Ontario is about 83% for nuclear plants and around 26% for wind. A simple analysis using IESO and other publicly available data suggests that replacing the fleet of nuclear power plants in Ontario would require more than 20,000 wind turbines at a conservatively estimated cost of more than eighty billion dollars. To provide gas-fired back-up capacity or some form of energy storage system to meet demand when the wind isn’t blowing would add billions more to that estimate – all for a net gain of zero in terms of reduced emissions.

Like many environmentalists, the signatories to the recently unveiled ‘Leap Manifesto’, believe that we must decarbonize immediately to save the planet and that we can meet all of our energy needs with wind and solar power. The manifesto is just one more indicator of how hopelessly optimistic and misguided these green enthusiasts are. Even without the damage to the distribution network during the ice storm, thousands of residents would still have been freezing in the dark if the province had to rely entirely on wind and solar to supply its electricity.

I also checked the IESO website this past July 28, when southern Ontario was experiencing a heat wave. In the middle of the afternoon, there was no wind and virtually no electricity being generated by the scores of wind turbines standing motionless in the countryside. Demand for electricity was peaking as homes and businesses cranked up their air conditioning. Once again, nuclear, hydro, and gas-fired generators fed the grid and kept everyone cool. Solar contributed less than one half of one per cent of generated output during the day, and of course nothing once the sun had set.

A key actor in the Ontario Liberal government’s decision to adopt renewables as the way forward was Gerald Butts. He had then-premier Dalton McGuinty’s ear just as he now has Justin Trudeau’s in his role as Trudeau’s principal advisor. Butts is a fervent environmentalist who used to head up WWF Canada. He’s on record saying, “…100 per cent sustainable, renewable energy is possible and economical by 2050 if we start the transition today.” For the record, WWF Canada opposes nuclear power generation so it’s probably reasonable to assume this is Mr. Butts’ and Mr. Trudeau’s position also.

While campaigning in Trois Rivières on September 2, Trudeau declared, “Ensuring that our infrastructure is able to adapt to new challenges – like climate change and threats to our water and land – is essential to our future prosperity.” He then laid out his party’s plans to address this perceived deficiency through (presumably deficit-financed) infrastructure “investments”. These investments will include the establishment of a “…Canada Infrastructure Bank to provide low-cost financing for infrastructure projects, and Green Bonds to support renewable energy projects.” The Liberals promise to “…use new financing instruments to stimulate investment in retrofits and distributed energy systems.”

In short, the federal Liberals will adopt the ruinous policy that Gerald Butts sold to their provincial counterparts in Ontario. It’s extraordinary that these radical and economically unsound positions are part of a major party’s platform, particularly a platform founded on the belief that public investment is what is needed to kick-start the national economy. The return ratepayers in Ontario have seen from the McGuinty/Wynne “investments” in green energy is worse than the output of a solar panel at midnight – less than zero. We don’t need to borrow money to repeat those mistakes nationally.

The NDP are no less committed than the Liberals to this fanciful line of thought. Tom Mulcair, presumably to reinforce his credibility on this file, frequently reminds us that he held the Environment portfolio as an MNA in Québec. In a 2013 speech to the Economic Club of Canada Mulcair said in order to ensure Canada’s long-term prosperity an NDP government would, “…invest in modern, clean energy technology that will keep Canada on the cutting edge of energy development and ensure affordable energy rates into the future.” The NDP has always opposed nuclear power so we can be pretty sure the range of investment options Mr. Mulcair is considering is pretty limited.

Mulcair also told the Economic Club audience that, “We will rise to meet our international climate change obligations by creating a cap-and-trade system that puts a clear market price on carbon.” Mr. Trudeau also talks about putting a price on carbon. The revenues generated will presumably be directed to “clean technology” investments so favoured by both leaders, and both are practically champing at the bit for a chance to commit Canada to massive emissions reductions at the Paris COP in December.

As an informed, concerned member of Canada’s electorate I think Mulcair and Trudeau owe voters explicit details about how their vague plans to limit emissions, price carbon, and “invest” in renewables will deliver the low-, or no-carbon robust economy they each promise. I believe that the positions of Liberal advisor Gerald Butts and Leap Manifesto author Naomi Klein are extreme, unaffordable and ultimately counter to the national interest.

So, Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Trudeau, please tell us how much do we need to reduce emissions by, and what will the effect on the global climate be if we make these cuts, bearing in mind that Canada is responsible for less than 2% of world emissions? If the solution is renewables, what is the target proportion of our energy mix for these technologies and what will it cost to achieve? Most forecasts suggest that renewables, including biofuels, will be only 10-20% of the global energy mix by 2050. How will we ensure the global competitiveness of our industries and the financial security of Canadians if they must shoulder additional tax burdens, higher costs for carbon-based fuels, and ongoing subsidies for renewables? We need substantive answers to these questions, and more. Asking voters to take a leap of faith just doesn’t cut it.

Access to affordable, reliable energy delivered the prosperity Canadians enjoy today. How we will maintain that foundation, or at least avoid materially damaging it, is the most important conversation we haven’t had in this election to date. The progressive parties, with their ill-defined plans to “invest in green technology” have provided plenty of reasons for Canadians to be very wary of the future they promise.

Played by the Great Crusader

Canada is now in the midst of a protracted, unusually long federal election. There is hope among many people that this will be prime minister Stephen Harper’s last hurrah, not least the country’s progressives whose animosity toward the Conservative leader has been identified by some pundits as ‘Harper derangement syndrome’ because of the tendency of those afflicted to lay the blame for any problem or issue confronting Canada at Harper’s feet.

In the initial McLean’s leaders’ debate all three of the aspirants hoping to unseat Mr. Harper referenced energy and environmental policy and, more specifically, how dismal, in their view, the Conservative record is in these areas. In today’s world, more often than not, when concern is expressed for the environment it is a proxy for concern over catastrophic anthropogenic global warming – climate change – caused by the burning of carbon-based fuels. Proposed solutions inevitably hinge on a massive reduction, or the outright elimination, of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – something that is now referred to as ‘carbon pollution’ despite carbon dioxide being a colourless, odourless gas essential to virtually all forms of life.

From a policy perspective then, energy and the environment are inextricably bound to one another. We cannot make progress on either front without due consideration of the impacts any proposed policy will have on the corollary issue. It is now commonplace to hear that the world’s, and Canada’s, core objective must be a shift to a low-carbon economy and the solution is to move firmly and rapidly to ‘renewables’.

Renewables today typically means wind, solar and biofuels. Hard-core environmentalists also dislike zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear and hydro because of the potential contamination risks and waste issues associated with the former, and the impact on local ecosystems implied by the latter. This leaves a pretty limited set of alternatives with which to effect the desired shift away from carbon-based energy sources.

It should be noted that self-described environmentalists have done a great job propagating their views among politicians and the media so that today, what a rational, pragmatic person might consider to be, at a minimum, an outrageously ambitious and likely unachievable solution is now considered to be the way forward.

Faith in renewables has long been a core element of any self-respecting progressive’s thinking on energy and the environment. The icing on the cake is the increasingly espoused idea that shifting to renewables is also the path to a robust and vibrant economy. This notion is almost Orwellian in that it implies that the wealth we enjoy and largely take for granted has been generated despite, rather than because of, carbon-based fuel use.

For Canadian environmental and energy policy this line of thinking has profound implications. The Conservative government under Harper’s direction is accused of having put all of the economy’s eggs in a single basket – oil exploitation. They are further accused of gutting environmental regulation in their haste to turn Canada into an energy superpower. The sitting government is apparently all about fast-tracking risky pipeline projects, permitting waterways to be used as open sewers and allowing oil companies to ride roughshod over Canadian laws and values.

In the debate and in their daily campaign pronouncements, Ms. May, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau toss words like ‘climate’, ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’, ‘renewable’ and ‘technology’ around like confetti. These are code words intended to convey to voters that these leaders’ thinking is aligned with the widespread progressive view on energy and the environment. Factual data are, however, conspicuously absent.

As with so many aspects of Canadian political, cultural, and economic life, the influence of the United States in this sphere is palpable. U.S. president Barack Obama has clearly made solving the climate problem a legacy project. He has delivered much overheated rhetoric on the subject and taken some deliberate, but arguably symbolic actions. These include signing a ‘landmark’ carbon emissions agreement with China, subsidizing the solar power industry, bringing in tough new regulations for coal-fired power generation and, most critically for Canada, blocking the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline which is intended to move Canadian (and American) oil south to U.S. refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

Keystone XL is a project of energy giant Trans Canada Corporation and is not fundamentally different from any other pipeline project in North America other than it has been demonized by environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada and become the focal point for the anti-oil movement. The environmental movement in the U.S. has been an important constituency for president Obama and he has quite willingly pandered to their positions on energy and the environment. Doing so has allowed these groups to propagate the idea that oil from Canada’s oil sands is ‘dirty’ and that stopping development of the oil sands is critical to the planet’s survival. The environmental lobby in the U.S. has effectively positioned blocking Keystone XL as a test of Obama’s credibility as a climate crusader and Obama appears to have swallowed not only the bait, but the hook, the line, and the sinker as well.

As a consequence of Obama’s inaction, Canadian oil production has been prevented from getting to market easily and has been forced to sell at a discount. Rail transport has been used as a much riskier and more costly alternative. The obstruction of Keystone XL has also put wind in the sails of opponents of other proposed pipelines, notably Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain projects in B.C., and Enbridge’s Energy East project that will reverse the flow of an existing pipeline and move western oil through Ontario and Quebec to New Brunswick where it will be refined.

Even before the election campaign started in Canada the leaders of the opposition parties made pretty clear that they were much enamoured of Mr. Obama’s positions. Mr. Mulcair opposes the Northern Gateway and Keystone, wants a more rigorous approval process for Trans Mountain, and has waffled furiously trying to appease competing constituencies on Energy East. He likes the idea of “sustainably” refining oil in New Brunswick but has a thorny problem trying to square the need for a pipeline with provincial sentiments to facilitate that. Many people in Quebec, a province critical to the NDP’s electoral hopes, are anti-oil and strongly opposed to reversing the flow of an existing pipeline that runs through the province.

Mr. Trudeau is all over the map but appears to be opposed to Northern Gateway, lukewarm toward Kinder Morgan, supportive of Keystone XL and fuzzy on Energy East, while Ms. May is fundamentally opposed to oil and pipelines, and the oil sands in particular. Mr. Trudeau’s position might be seen as a little cynical; it’s relatively safe to support Keystone XL when you enjoy the comfort of knowing your confrere in the White House is never going to permit it.

These three use concern over the approval process for pipeline projects to bolster their positions on the various proposals in play. According to this trio, the fourteen-year process that the proponents of Northern Gateway have had to navigate is insufficient. For the record, the Joint Review Panel that evaluated the submission determined that the project was in Canada’s best interest and gave conditional approval for the project in December 2013. The National Energy Board (NEB) has said the project can only proceed if all 209 of the conditions catalogued by the Joint Review Panel are met.

That process is ongoing but apparently is not robust enough for progressives. It is hard to fathom what would constitute a sufficiently robust process to satisfy the concerns of these people. It is probably reasonable to suspect they don’t know either, as their objections appear to be based more on emotion than how to resolve particular engineering, safety or social/economic issues. Never mind though, complaining about a gutted environmental regulatory process is sure to be a vote winner among like-minded progressives.

Having been a leading actor in the blocking of Canadian pipeline development, Obama adopted the role of climate change emissary and signed an agreement with China, much heralded by progressives. Under the agreement, Chinese carbon emissions will continue to rise for the next fifteen years until they peak in 2030, when, it is promised, they will begin to decline. For its part, the U.S. must reduce its emissions 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. Due to the substitution of gas for coal in electricity generation and a reduction in energy demand because of the Great Recession, the U.S. has already seen a 10% reduction in its CO2 emissions.

Chinese CO2 emissions are forecast to increase by about 40% over this time frame and, as China is already responsible for around 25% of global emissions, but the U.S. only 15%, the impact of this ‘historic’ agreement will be negligible. Meanwhile, Canada accounts for barely 2% of global emissions, and its oil sands production only 0.12%, but suffers the unchallenged criticism of the great crusader.

U.S. emissions have gone down over the past few years primarily because of abundant natural gas from fracked shale deposits displacing coal for electricity generation, not because of any policy action on the part of the Obama administration. Concurrent with the increase in gas production, oil production in the U.S. has increased by more than 40% during his presidency. Over the same time frame, Canada’s oil production has only increased about 25% and total Canadian production is less than half that of the U.S. Turning a vast area of the lower 48 states into a pin cushion through a massive fracking program that will make the U.S. the world’s largest oil producer gets scant attention, while a dubious agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is lauded as some sort of climate change breakthrough.

The “dirty oil” tag attached to Canadian oil sands product refers to two aspects of its production: the energy intensity and related CO2 emissions of the extraction process and; the physical degradation of local environments as a consequence of mining-type operations. The industry has invested heavily and successfully in technology to reduce energy intensity, and significant effort is put into land reclamation following extraction. The industry also operates under a robust regulatory regime, as do all resource extraction and other heavy industries in Canada.

An interesting analysis by a branch of the International Energy Agency found that emissions related to oil sands production were equivalent to those for extra heavy oil, around 9.3-15.8 gCO2/MJ (grams per megajoule), while for oil shale (fracked oil) the emissions range between 13.0 and 50.0 gCO2/MJ. Fracked wells typically release significant amounts of methane during the well completion process and often flare off large quantities of natural gas (methane) during production because there is no facility to capture, store and transport it. Flaring is preferable to releasing the gas in its raw state from an emissions perspective because methane as a greenhouse gas traps about 25 times the amount of heat that CO2 does. Without even taking into account the strain fracking places on water resources, it’s evident that fracking is a pretty “dirty” undertaking in its own right. Perhaps president Obama might have looked in his own backyard before describing Canadian oil sands production as “extraordinarily dirty”.

The southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, long since approved, built, and put into service, now transports U.S. oil from fracking projects to refineries in Texas. At the same time, pipeline projects to transport fracked gas in the U.S., which will likely displace Canadian natural gas from eastern Canadian and U.S. markets, are moving ahead. The latest move by the president has been to approve exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska which upsets environmentalists but which Obama defends in terms of balancing economic and environmental interests. Apparently, Canadians are to be discouraged from seeking a similar balance and encouraged to castigate those who advocate such plans.

The president’s other climate initiatives have not exactly produced stellar results. The Obama administration’s $80 billion clean technology program was tarnished when flagship solar panel maker Solyndra, the recipient of a $500 million federal loan guarantee, went bankrupt. An electric-car battery plant that received $250 million also filed for bankruptcy.

In 2014, renewables accounted for 9.8% of U.S. energy consumption but much of that energy was supplied by hydro-electricity generation, and the burning of wood and waste, as well as liquid biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, rather than from wind and solar generation. That’s up from around 6.23% of total consumption since 2005, an increase of 54% but, at the same time, overall energy use has declined 2% so the gain is less than it appears. Carbon-based fuel consumption has declined about 6% but overall energy use from all sources has only declined 2%. Energy consumption fell dramatically in 2009 because of the recession and has been slowly rebounding since. Liquid biofuels are also questionable in terms of net benefits as they are energy intensive to produce and remove agricultural resources from food production.

So, does this represent a dramatic shift away from carbon-based fuels and toward renewables, to a low-carbon economy? In a word, no. Solar and wind projects in the U.S., as in jurisdictions like Ontario, Germany, or other European countries, are directly subsidized by government. Without those subsidies investment in these wholly inadequate technologies would disappear. Unlike the ‘subsidies’ that progressives believe are enjoyed by the carbon-based fuel industry, these are real cash transfers, not imputed social and environmental costs based on scenarios of cataclysmic events that progressives are convinced will happen if we don’t stop using carbon based fuels forthwith. And nor are they capital cost allowances that all businesses receive when they invest in new equipment or other means of production. One wonders, when they do their math, do they ever look at the other side of the balance sheet and consider the almost inestimable contribution carbon fuels have made to the developed world’s health, wealth and general quality of life? When your outlook is as gloomy as most progressives’, probably not. The world will be run on carbon-based fuels for decades to come. As Mr. Harper has noted, switching to a low-carbon economy is a long-term endeavour and will require “serious technological transformation” – carpeting the planet with solar panels or creating forests of windmills won’t cut it.

The progressive trio of Mulcair, Trudeau, and May have all publicly expressed a wish to leap aboard the climate change bandwagon in Paris at the upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in December and commit Canada to an agreement that will align its environmental and energy policies with those of the ‘enlightened’ countries of the world, including the U.S. under Obama. Much of their motivation seems to come from a desire to rid Canada of its shame at having been such an unwilling, uncommitted participant at past COPs. This eagerness betrays the frightening reality that these three, and their legions of progressive followers, have been played.

Masquerading as an environmental crusader, Obama has effectively pursued a protectionist policy that has negatively impacted the Canadian economy and severely strained a long-standing and valuable relationship. His obstructionist behaviour goes against the grain of fair-trading and probably violates NAFTA. He has subtly, but also openly, maligned the Canadian government over its handling of the environment portfolio yet there is little in his own record to crow about. But, that’s Obama, if overheated rhetoric, verbal contortions, and hubris were the principal measures of national leadership, rather than material accomplishments, his two-term presidency would be the yardstick against which the records of past and future presidents would be measured.

Let’s check the scorecard. Under Obama, the U.S. has massively increased its oil production through fracking, a “dirty” process if we accept progressive nomenclature. In addition it has entered into an agreement with the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, that gives license to unfettered Chinese emissions for at least fifteen years. One leg of a single pipeline project, Keystone XL, has been obstructed preventing Canadian oil from getting to market easily. Approval may be granted, according to Obama, if Canada tightens up its management of its oil sands and makes its “dirty oil” cleaner, even though Canadian oil sands emissions are but 1/10th of 1% of the world total while Chinese and U.S. emissions are 40+%. U.S. CO2 emissions have declined modestly, largely due to cheap fracked gas substituting for coal in electricity generation and because of the lingering impacts of the Great Recession on demand for energy. Shell has been given a green light to start exploratory drilling off the Alaskan coast and renewables, through cash subsidies, have managed to deliver a small, insignificant share of overall energy consumption.

Canada, meanwhile, has had to trade its oil at a discount, has seen rising opposition to new pipeline and energy projects in part because of the influence of opinion makers like Obama, has had to ship much of its oil by rail, a riskier, more energy-, and emissions-intensive means of transport, and has seen its reputation tarred by progressive activists both within and without its borders. Through all of this, Canada’s federal government has pushed for fair treatment of its energy industry by its largest trading partner and principal international ally, waited patiently for the regulatory process to finally deliver approval for energy projects, eased out of the hopeless Kyoto accord that the U.S. never signed on to, and tried to defend its positions against a rising cacophony from agitated and largely irrational, or at least unthinking and poorly informed, progressives.

The teaching moment that Obama provides for progressives in Canada is that enlightened self-interest is more important than heart-felt but unrealizable dreams about a buzzword-laden, oil and pipeline-free future. Stephen Harper has managed the environment and energy files masterfully. His singular failing has been his inability to articulate and explain his actions; something not easily done when you are swimming against an absolute torrent of adverse opinion. He is almost the polar opposite of Obama, whose ability to gain traction arguing that black is white, or up is down, is nothing, if not remarkable. It is a sad prospect that the leadership alternatives in this country can be so easily played and cannot readily identify what is in the national interest.

The ‘R’ Word – Use it Thoughtfully

July 28, 2015, was a great day for illustrating why the ‘R’ word – renewables – (wind and solar energy) should be used judiciously by thinking people.

First thing to note is that it was a hot day in Southern Ontario. Environment Canada issued a heat warning, forecast a high of 33°C, and recorded a temperature of 31°C at Pearson Airport at 1:00 PM.

Heat warning

On such a day, demand for electricity would have been at or near its annual peak as countless homes, businesses and public facilities cranked up their air conditioning.

The second thing to note is that the wind and solar generators that Ontarians have been forced to subsidize in vain pursuit of the provincial government’s green vision were effectively useless in terms of their contribution to meeting demand.

The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) manages the electrical grid in Ontario. The IESO reported that Ontario demand at 12:00 PM was 21,026 MW. The following screen shot taken from the IESO website indicates that at 12:00 PM wind generators were delivering 30 MW, and solar generators 97 MW, out of a total supply of 21,306 MW. Combined that’s just over ½ of 1%.

The chart also shows how so-called ‘dispatchable’ power sources, i.e., those that can be turned on and off or turned up and down in fairly short order, hydro and gas generation for example, were ramped up over the course of the day as the temperature, and demand for electricity, rose. It’s also evident that the nuclear fleet was providing the base load power needed day in and day out by the province, as it always does.

The installed capacity of wind is actually more than 3,000 MW but, on a hot, windless day, its effective capacity was about zero. Solar was operating pretty much at the peak of its capacity at midday; a fairly modest contribution however, despite there being acres of rooftops and farm fields covered with photovoltaic panels in Ontario.

Generation

All of this essentially useless and ineffective generating capacity costs ratepayers in the province billions of dollars and has contributed to Ontario’s declining industrial competitiveness. Anyone, and especially any politician, who suggests we need to move more quickly to renewables should be challenged on their facts and assumptions. Personally, I’m not keen on the prospect of freezing or frying in the dark because some misguided zealots are busy ‘saving the planet’ at my expense.

A few other points to note: gas plant capacity has increased in Ontario to offset the loss of retired coal-fired generating capacity and to provide back-up when it’s either too dark/cloudy, or too still for the renewables to deliver. So, Ontarians have had to pay twice for the effective capacity available.

Nuclear and hydro generation are greenhouse gas emissions-free and accounted for 86% of the electricity generated in Ontario in 2014 (62% for nukes, 24% for hydro). Few other jurisdictions on the planet can match that green hue.

Biofuel, another class of renewable, has also ramped up slightly. For the record, ‘biofuel’ in Ontario means burning wood. Yes, wood. It’s meant to be renewable because new trees will grow and replace those burned and will absorb the carbon dioxide emitted through combustion. That only takes 30-60 years, but hey, if we get to thump our chests and trumpet our green credentials then I guess it’s worth it. I can’t really think why else we’d be going back to wood to meet our energy needs.

Stay cool.